Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

What a Piece of Work: Lacan?: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

What a Piece of Work: Lacan?: Books

Article excerpt

Peter J. Smith welcomes non-Lit Crit efforts to find the method in the Danish prince's madness.

The Hamlet Doctrine

By Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster

Verso, 288pp, Pounds 14.99

ISBN 9781781682562

Published 23 September 2013

This little book", as the authors describe The Hamlet Doctrine, is topped and tailed by some too-much protesting: "We are outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism"; "We are but inauthentic amateurs"; "Perhaps this book will be the undoing of our marriage." What does this pseudo- confessional mode and false modesty reveal? Why such faux-naif posturing?

Hamlet is not the preserve of literary critics, especially those literary critics who are thick-headed about literature (and there are plenty of us). Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy and Jamieson Webster is a practising psychoanalyst; both have published several books in their respective disciplines. Each is well qualified to explore a literary work that has evaded the pronouncements of generations of literary critics. This play in particular shirks the bridle of critical control, resisting the attempts of traditional Lit Crit to (as Hamlet puts it) "pluck out the heart of (its) mystery".

Hamlet is the text, sui generis, that stretches literary criticism to breaking point, as attested by the glum submissions of its greatest commentators. For A.C. Bradley, "the text admits of no sure interpretation"; for T.S. Eliot, it was "puzzling and disquieting"; and for John Dover Wilson, "Hamlet is an illusion". Nor might we ascribe this sense of defeat to a theoretically uninitiated past. The play's most recent Oxford editor, G.R. Hibbard, acknowledges his bewilderment: Shakespeare's tragedy "means something, even though, or perhaps because, that 'something' admits of no ready or simple definition". Confronted with no fewer than three different versions of Hamlet, editorial confusion is de rigueur.

Perhaps we might look with greater confidence to the play on stage, but near the end of his 1,000-page account of theatrical Hamlets, Marvin Rosenberg can offer only cold comfort: "All the words about Hamlet, almost three centuries of words, and as many of stagings, and the adventure into the depths of the play has hardly begun." Philosopher, psychoanalyst, anthropologist, historian or political theorist - if anybody has anything useful to add, seize the conch.

Critchley and Webster do have useful things to say. …

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